By Annick De Gooyer, BScPT / Vestibular Therapist

vestibular system

The vestibular system, part of the inner ear, provides information to our brain and eyes about our body’s movement and head position. This allows us to move safely over uneven ground, see clearly when we are in motion, and maintain an upright position. It includes three loop-shaped structures (semicircular canals) that contain fluid and fine sensors that monitor our head’s rotation.

Words describing vestibular disorders can be very confusing. For instance, vertigo, describes what we are feeling but does not tell us why. The word “vertigo” which comes from the Latin word “vertere” meaning “to turn”, just describes a type of dizziness. It is a sensation of movement, often a spinning feeling, when the person experiencing it is not actually moving. So, although people with vestibular problems may have vertigo, vertigo is a symptom, not the problem. On the other hand, you can also have a vestibular problem that does not involve feelings of vertigo. Other types of dizziness include; disequilibrium (which is a feeling of unsteadiness when moving), light-headedness or floating, or feeling faint.

The most common cause of vertigo in vestibular patients is Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV).  Part of our vestibular system contains crystals that help us sense acceleration/deceleration and gravity.  Sometimes one of these crystals can become dislodged and move into one of the semi-circular canals. When someone has one of these crystals and they move their head such that the crystal moves (usually looking up or down, or rolling over in bed), the brain becomes confused because it is receiving conflicting information from the right and left vestibular organs. This causes it to think we are moving when we are not and that creates the sensation of vertigo or spinning. The spinning only happens when the crystal is moving. Once we stop moving, the crystal settles into a new position in the canal and the spinning stops. Vertigo in BPPV is generally very brief; less than a minute but is very intense and can cause nausea and sometimes vomiting. It is treated with a re-positioning maneuver, often the Epley, which usually only needs to be done once and the symptoms are gone.

While BPPV is (as the name suggests), benign and is generally successfully treated, it is important to know that vertigo and other types of dizziness can also be caused by non-vestibular issues, some of which can be quite serious. If your doctor determines it is likely a vestibular problem, give us a call and we can help you stop spinning!


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